U.S. Air Force Performs First Ever Code Change On A Flying U-2 Spyplane Running Kubernetes

A U-2S of the 9th RW based at Beale AFB. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force)

Less than one month after the first flight, another milestone has been achieved with the open-source container-orchestration system flying on a Dragon Lady aircraft.

On Oct. 16, 2020, a U-2 intelligence gathering aircraft with the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, California, running a Kubernetes, an open-source container-orchestration system for automating computer application deployment, scaling, and management.

As I’ve explained in detail in a previous article, “Kubernetes is used to deploy and automate microservice-based applications. As opposed to the past when applications were monolithic, current applications are made of collections of services (or micro-services) each one implementing a different feature of the application. For instance, one service in an app is used to implement the search on a website, another one implements the comment section, another one implements the payments and so on. A microservice-based application enables quick and reliable delivery of complex applications and make the change management easier. In fact, each microservices is loosely coupled to the others and can be independently tested, optimized and deployed. This means that developers can test and update the code of a service without touching or affecting the rest of the micro-services. As you may imagine, this approach has significantly shortened the lifecycle of software.”

During the first test, carried out on Sept. 22, Kubernetes was used to pool available on-board computing power: it ran advanced machine learning algorithms on four individual, flight-certified computers.

The second test, saw Kubernetes “update” the code on the U-2. Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Will Roper, unveiled some interesting details about this test:

With the first update, Kubernetes ran a logging container that wrote some text along with a timestamp in a file (whose fetched output was shown by Toper); the second update saw Kubernetes deploy “improved automatic target recognition algorithms” in an unspecified test application/sensor.

We don’t have the whole details here, so the extent of the “update” is not clear (actually, the deployment of a new container in Kubernetes can be seen more like a configuration update than a code change). Anyway, the achievement of the latest milestone proves that the U.S. Air Force is continuing to advance in its program to give its weapons system the ability to leverage the power of containerization.

Here’s what I wrote in the last article about Kubernetes published here at The Aviationist:

The benefits of microservices orchestration will be significant in the future when there will be aircraft designed to run cloud native software from the beginning.

In fact, the U.S. Air Force and DoD are just conducting a series of tests to validate the concept and prepare to field Kubernetes as well as other Open Source systems on future weapons systems.

Last year, at KubeCon 2019 in San Diego, Nicolas Chaillan presented the testing conducted with an F-16 SIL and explained the impact of the platform for software teams across the military.

With the legacy waterfall process, it might take years for new code to make it all the way from the developers to production. And even then, updates, testing and even security reviews relied heavily on human effort. A waste of time and labour that can be prevented with automation already used in the commercial sector, to accelerate the time to market. In the future, with the proper automation and CI/CD (Continuous Integration/Continuous Development) processes, the U.S. military will be able to make new features/upgrades/fixes available to the warfighters in a similar fashion and frequency as Apple or Google publish an update for your smartphone apps on their public stores.

BTW, the upcoming B-21 Raider stealth bomber will also rely on Kubernetes.

Noteworthy, Roper himself had the opportunity to fly at 70,000 feet in a TU-2S:


BTW, if you are interested in the U-2, listen to this +2-hour live interview with Ross Franquemont, a former Dragon Lady pilot, here:

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.